In All Our Affairs: Practicing Patience

A Young Lois Burham
Patience is the virtue which enables us to function well in situations that require waiting over an extended time where the waiting is experienced as a weight or a burden. The waiting may be for something negative or undesirable (uncertainty, discomfort, inconvenience, unpleasantness, difficulty, hardship, provocation, pain, suffering) to cease, or for something positive or desirable (which is expected, anticipated, or hoped for) to be realized or fulfilled.

Virtues enable us to function well, and in the case of patience to function well is to wait well. This is to take things in stride and be willing to endure the delay graciously, calmly, with serenity and equanimity, and without complaint. To function poorly is to vent dissatisfaction and experience such emotions as annoyance, frustration, irritation, or exasperation in the case of those situations we wish to cease, or to experience anxiety, fear, or diminishing hope with regards to those situations we wish to materialize.

The latter are all signs of impatience, a term which designates both a defect of character and an emotion. If we are impatient by character, we are habitually inclined to see waiting as an unbearable burden and are easy prey to the emotion. As a felt emotion, impatience expresses itself in bodily behaviors such as sighing, huffing, fidgeting, tapping one’s fingers, shaking one’s head, and rolling one’s eyes. All of this has the effect of reinforcing and increasing the feeling of impatience.

The attitudes and emotions which patience promotes help us to make the best of what may not be the best of situations and keeps us from creating a worse one. They also help us to assist others sharing the burden of time with us to also wait well. Impatience, on the other hand, generates attitudes and emotions which can easily degenerate into rudeness, unkindness, anger, and impulsive action. This makes of impatience something more than a minor defect, which is the way it is often regarded, and of patience more of a necessary virtue.

Unlike perhaps most virtues, the situations which call for the exercise of patience are easy to recognize. They all involve waiting and delay, typically under circumstances over which we have no control. In most cases, there is nothing we can do to hurry things up, which is what impatience desires.

But though we may have no control over the situation, we do have some control over our perception of it. This suggests one way we can practice patience. Granted that our perception of delay is accurate, we can intensity that perception and increase our impatience, or de-intensify it and decrease it. We can intensify it, say at an unusually long supermarket register line, by keeping track of how many people are in front of us, how full each shopping cart is, and how long it’s taking the cashier to ring up and bag each item, and noticing by contrast how much faster other lines seem to be moving, all of which may give us the very strong impression that we are stuck with a slow, incompetent, or clueless cashier and therefore have a “right” to be impatient. Or we can de-intensify it by taking our eyes and our attention off the whole situation and, let us say, taking out a book or magazine or browsing the internet with our cellphone.  This will ease our discomfort, and might even make the waiting enjoyable.

The issue here is not one of distraction but of perception. Distraction is a technique, a way of modifying our perception of a situation. As an emotion, impatience results from the way we see a situation. If we can change the way we see it, we can change the way we experience it emotionally. When waiting, one way to do that, as in our example, is by intentionally reducing our conscious awareness of our circumstance. This helps to dull or blunt the feeling of delay, and at the same time keeps our eyes from turning into magnifying lenses and blowing the problem out of all proportion.

Changing the way we see a situation also involves changing our view of what’s involved in the situation for us, the main thing about it that concerns us. In waiting, that is principally our time. We don’t have time to wait. We have things to do and places to go. Thus another way of lessening the burden of time and being able to wait more patiently is by modifying the value that we place on our time in a given circumstance. I usually carry a book around because for me, like for many of us, time is of the essence and I don’t want to waste any of it. Time, however, can become a tyrant. We can try to squeeze more out of it than is possible, cramming too much into our schedule, not giving ourselves sufficient time to accomplish things or to get places. There just doesn't seem to be enough hours in a day. We are always rushing. Always behind.

By overvaluing time and making unreasonable demands of ourselves and others in relation to it, we create the conditions that foster impatience. Recently I had hurried off to chair a meeting when, as I approached the town’s railroad crossing, the barriers started to lower. I had to laugh. I had just been working on this article, and the situation was all too familiar. I had chaired a meeting in another town and another state where I had to get through two railroad crossings and over a drawbridge. Since I seldom made allowance for these potential delays, getting stuck and having to watch an endless train of railroad cars drag painfully along was pure torture. Never mind that we were talking about only two or three minutes here. I didn’t have two or three minutes.

If we are always pressed for time, we won’t handle delay well. It’s that simple. We may have to lower the premium that we place on that commodity. We may need to put things in their right perspective and be able to see that, in many situations, there are things more important than “our” time. Time is a gift, God’s gift, when seen spiritually. It is to be valued and to be used wisely. But to use it wisely, it needs to be valued rightly. Some of us may tend to put time ahead of everything, sacrificing first things for second things on the altar of efficiency, productivity, and achievement. Our impatience may sometimes flare up because we feel we don’t have enough time to do our work. People are always calling on us. Helping others becomes a chore. Yet, we know we are called to serve, and we don’t necessarily get to decide who, when, and under what conditions.

When I was new in the program, I started to make a point of slowing down when I walked. This was very unlike me, and totally counter to my fast-paced, big-city environment and the business I was in at the time. But being sober, I became aware that walking fast and rushing everywhere made me feel agitated and all worked up physically, so that I tended to do everything else fast: talk fast and drive fast and make quick decisions and react quickly and automatically. This helped to shorten an already short fuse, since 25 years of drinking and trying to have it my way left me with a severe anger problem. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the tools to make the change last, and I soon reverted to my old self. 

Looking back, I can see now that I was intuitively on the right track. By slowing down I was trying to deal with my (constitutionally) impatient self. But I didn’t know that. At the time, I knew nothing about patience or virtue or practicing any principles or how lasting change actually comes about. Now I understand that slowing down and being patient are two sides of the same coin. So I now try taking my time and slowing my pace when I walk, drive, speak, think, and make decisions. The result is that I am less prone to impatience and less susceptible to anger, in the past one of my defining character traits.

Impatience is experienced as an urge or a desire to hurry things up. Slowing down counters that urge, helping to quiet the mind and the body. It helps to avoid the physiological correlates that poise me for impatience and takes the edge off impulsive speech and action. When I slow down deliberately and intentionally, I increase my ability to respond to situations more consciously and reflectively and less automatically and reflexively.

To practice slowing down with regards to speaking and thinking is to listen more and try to understand better, and not be in a hurry to speak and interrupt people. It is to wait and weigh our words before we respond to a question or statement or to an opinion we might not agree with. Waiting and thinking things through before we talk can make the difference between having a cordial and fruitful discussion and getting into a needless argument, particularly when dealing with sensitive or controversial issues. Sometimes, especially when challenged or provoked, we may slow down to a complete halt and practice patience by holding our peace and practicing silence, quelling the urge to respond instantly and in kind. In slowing down our thinking and giving things due reflection and deliberation, we avoid jumping to conclusions, making hasty judgments and evaluations, and taking ill-considered action.

Slowing down also makes us more aware of bodily expressions of impatience, making it possible to deliberately refrain from indulging them and thus weakening their aggravating effect on the emotion. Instead, we may be able to practice contrary behaviors, such as breathing more deeply and slowly, adopting a sympathetic and understanding expression, or bringing our hands together in a pose characteristic of and conducive to reflection.

When we are prone to impatience with people in particular and not just with a situation in general, we are usually looking at them in terms of some perceived defect. We may find the person slow in performing a task, learning a lesson we are teaching, getting a point we are making, or getting to a point they are trying to make. In these cases, the weight of time is duration. But there are many cases where the burden involves not only extension, but repetition. A sense of “There he goes again” comes over us.

These situations typically involve frequent or repeated contact with the same person. Consider the rooms. Those who are in the habit of going on and rambling way beyond the allotted time may do so again at the next meeting, and at the meeting after that. Those who have a penchant for preaching, lecturing, or saying exactly the same thing over and over again, may continue to do so on every occasion. Those who tend to interject “you know” every other sentence will likely continue to do that every time they speak. In all these cases the repetitive or recurring nature of the behavior adds extra weight to the burden of time.

If we find these behaviors annoying or irritating, a little charity might help. We might consider that those who indulge them are probably not even aware of what they are doing, such being the nature of habit. A little humility might also help. We might consider that there are probably things about us that try other people’s patience, and of which we have no clue.

Situations often call into play more than one virtue, just as they present a temptation to more than one character defect. Defects don’t work in isolation from each other, and neither do the virtues. To be patient we usually have to draw on other virtues which help to foster patience and forestall impatience and related opposing traits.

One of these virtues is acceptance. When I find waiting an unbearable burden, it is often because I find it an unacceptable one. If I accept the burden, then I can bear it. Acceptance gives us the ability to wait for things to run their course and gain perspective on them before we decide on a course of action. It allows time for reflection and takes the edge off impulsivity.

Acceptance furthers patience inasmuch as, in accepting, we take things as they are and are not overly concerned with or desirous of changing them. If impatience is wanting X to happen without further delay, then patience is not having that concern or desire, that is, accepting the circumstance as it is. If I accept X, then I’m not impatient for X to cease, though I may very well like it to. If I accept that Y is not yet the case, then I’m not impatient for Y to be, though I would likely welcome it.

Impatience wants a circumstance other than that which obtains. If I accept my loved one as she is, then I am free from feelings of impatience toward her when her shortcomings keep cropping up, or when she regularly displays behavior which I might not find altogether pleasing, because I no longer desire her to be somebody other than who she is.

Gratitude is another aid to patience. In waiting for what we want, gratitude can help us to appreciate and be thankful for what we have, taking the pressure off the waiting. In a traffic jam, we can summons many reasons to be grateful. For some of us that can be something as simple as the fact that we have a car. Not everyone can afford one, and perhaps there was a time when drinking left us so broke that we couldn’t afford one ourselves, or when we couldn’t drive one because a DWI resulted in a suspended license. We may even be grateful that we can drive at all. If we live long enough, the time will come when we won’t even be able to do that. All of this takes a little perspective, but perspective is precisely what we want to cultivate. It helps us to take the long view and not allow the force of the immediate but temporary to blind us to what really matters.

Other virtues can help. Generosity for instance. Generosity is often associated almost exclusively with giving money. But giving of our time and attention to others is one of its highest forms. This is particularly the case when dealing with those who are ill, where patience is most in demand and its value most evident. Then there is faith. I can grow in patience in proportion to my belief that God is in absolute control of my life, of other people, and of circumstances. Things will happen in God’s time, not in mine.

This brings us to two virtues that are close neighbors of patience and with which they are sometimes confused. One is perseverance. The other tolerance.

As with patience, with perseverance time is also the governing factor. But with perseverance, time is not so much a matter of waiting and experiencing a burden. Perseverance is goal-oriented. It is directed toward achieving an objective through continuous, steady effort over the long haul. Here time is our ally, and rather than waiting we are moving and taking action. I persevere by sticking to my course, surmounting obstacles and difficulties and not allowing myself to become discouraged and slacken or abandon my efforts. I persevere until my efforts bear fruit, but I’m not waiting for that eventuality. I’m consistently working toward it. A point may come, however, where progress seems slow and the goal distant. It is then that I have to draw on patience to help me persevere.

As regards tolerance, the governing factor is difference, not time. Tolerance is practiced with regards to perceived differences in people, patience with regards to perceived delay in time. The two may dovetail, which is why they are conflated. A long-winded person may try our patience, but if what he’s being longwinded about reflects a viewpoint we vehemently object to, he will also be trying our tolerance. Someone may say “I have no patience for stupid people” when what they are really saying is that they are intolerant of them. They don’t want to admit to intolerance because it is generally seen as a more objectionable character defect than impatience and is less culturally acceptable. Tolerance is made possible because, as we grow spiritually in our recovery, we no longer see others as being fundamentally different from us. That can also help us to be patient with them.  

To practice a virtue as a virtue then, we have to have a good grasp of what that virtue is, what its opposite vice or defect is, and what other virtues can help to foster the one and discourage the other. We also have to recognize the types of situations which call that virtue forth, so that we can get increasingly better at working the virtue into them. And we have to know what to do and what not to do in those situations. This starts with adjusting our glasses to see the situation through the eyes of the virtue (patience) and not of the character defect (impatience).

To return to The Virtue of Patience, please click on the link.